Trip: Mount Despair - southeast face/east ridge Trip Date: 08/14/2021 Trip Report:
This is essentially the standard route for Mt Despair, approaching from the south via the Thornton and Triumph Creek basins, then traversing a third drainage (a west fork of Goodell Creek) before finally reaching the objective. Despite being such a well-known landmark, I was somewhat surprised by the scant route details I found in guidebooks or online, and wanted to post a few helpful or clarifying details for others headed this way, particularly in late-season conditions.
Mount Despair was among my original list of North Cascades objectives, yet languished more than 20 years untried --- largely due to an approach sounding somewhere between grueling and grim. In particular, the travel from Triumph Creek's rim to valley bottom, somehow traversing along or across the steep lower buttress of Mount Triumph's southwestern "rampart", retained an evil mien -- and spiced the prospect with an atmosphere of morbid speculation. In the end Paul and I found a line that, while challenging, did not have the dire character we were fully expecting, and may warrant noting.
[Imagery notes: we had the misfortune to venture here during a peak period of forest fire smoke, which shrouded the northern Cascades in a dry gray-brown pall and greatly diminished the scenic value of this outing; you have the misfortune to read a trip report illustrated with pictures in such conditions. Most of the route pictures that follow were taken on the last day on our way out, when the smoke-haze finally began to dissipate. I actually heightened the contrast in many of the other images, but still couldn't bring much detail out of the murk. Finally, note that in all the route images the yellow trace represents the more favorable line of travel we found in this season/conditions, whereas the pink trace are other route options that we either didn't attempt, or shouldn't have.]
On prior trips I had tried both the south ridge (dividing Thornton and Damnation Creeks) and trail approaches to the 6120' col west of upper Thornton Lake, and found their times comparable. Since we were starting out amid another heat wave, we opted for the Thornton Lakes trail and its greater watering opportunities.
(First view of Thornton Lakes basin on way in. Note spectral Triumph lurking faintly beyond the col leading to its celebrated NE Ridge route.)
Between the lake outlet and the Thornton Lakes campsite, an obvious climbers trail departs to the right, contouring above the west shoreline of the lower lake and northerly toward the middle lake before bending hard west and ascending a forested ridge to and above timberline. (Note: On our return, we tried a more direct tread toward the Thornton Lakes camp, but after crossing some open granite barrens, the tread diverged and disappeared into a warren of trail-like runnels of sand fed by the decaying granitic hummocks above... so we didn't confirm whether/where that boot path goes through.)
The climbers tread continues west well up the spur ridge, but before the final high point we departed the ridge rightward -- traversing northwest across a snowfield, then north through blocky terrain to the 6120' col on the divide between Thornton and Triumph Creeks.
(this is section of traverse out of sight in view above)
At 6120' saddle/col: view into next (Triumph Creek) drainage, and first glimpse of Mt Despair looming in the background.
The descending traverse across talus and heather slopes of upper Triumph Creek drainage (with one hidden, raw ravine/water supply midway), toward the timbered rampart of Triumph's lower SW buttress. We aimed to take open talus as far as possible toward the stream course before the buttress, but ended up dipping unnecessarily into a few yards of dense slide alder/yellow-cedar thrash before reaching the stony streambed. In dry conditions, at least, one can stay higher and avoid that unpleasantness by
contouring north through thinner alder before entering and downclimbing more of the broad, slabby stream bed.
(view up stream along rampart, near top of timber at roughly 5100' elevation)
(view down stream course to Triumph Creek valley bottom, ~1000' below)
The uppermost timber was a bit thin on cliffy footings, so we crossed the stream and carefully downclimbed its dry slabs a couple hundred feet before entering more continuous timber. From here descending through the forest was steep but straightforward, initially straight downhill (W or SW) paralleling the stream, then angling more rightward lower in timber where the forest widens beneath a face of the buttress. The bottom (~W) edge of this rampart timber seems to end in steep drops and slabs, so we worked further to right to the far side (NW) of the timber band, where toward the downhill end we found a walk-off exit onto steep meadowy slopes leading to valley bottom. Nothing about this line was particularly difficult, but as several accounts of this traverse left us expecting something more harrowing, I wanted to add that at least in these late-season and dry conditions, that isn't necessarily one's experience here.
(bottom of forest rampart, where we were finally able to exit to valley floor of Triumph Creek)
(Given the reputation of the timbered rampart approach, the principal alternate I had identified was Kearney's early-season (June) route, which descends a timbered rib ~directly W/downhill of the 6120' col before traversing northward lower in Triumph Creek valley. This is my estimate of that line, which we did not attempt in the present snow-free condition, but I include here for general interest or those planning earlier-season trips.)
It was evening by the time we exited the timbered rampart, and we decided to camp in the valley bottom rather than re-ascend 1000' to Triumph Pass as planned. We were able to quickly clear debris for a couple of sleeping spots next to the snout of this lingering snowfield, whose cool breath and running water made for a comfortable bivy.
The next morning we continued up to Triumph Pass. This line is actually the way we descended that evening...
... but not knowing better [yet], in the morning we tried following the easy stream ravine west of the larger timber patch midway to the pass.
around the corner the ravine steepened at a bedrock gorge, and it took some class 3+ scrambling--both dirty and airy--to exit the chasm and regain reasonable terrain above.
From there up it was just steep heather with stringers of dry stream rocks (at this date flowing surface water vanished at least 500' below Triumph Pass). At the pass we noted several established bivy sites, though we didn't look in the timber patch camp Beckey noted just south of/below Triumph Pass (background). No water here, though
it is available in the form of snow a few yards down on north side of pass. Speaking of, we found the snow on the remnant glacier (or perennial snowfield? - no sign of crevassing anywhere) to be in excellent condition--hard but not icy, and were able to quickly work down toward lake.
(view north from Triumph Pass of traverse route and waiting objective)
Exiting the lake basin, we immediately turned up-ridge and regained 500-600' to easily cross a gully high on good bedrock... not far below the same stream course quickly unravels into a messy, raw defile. This is also a good elevation for the continuing northward traverse above timberline.
(view south from Despair over the ~2 mile approach from Triumph Pass)
From the outlet of the pocket lake beneath Despair we initially ascended the timbered ridge northward out of the cirque-like basin. Where the continuous rock face on the rib to our left ended, we immediately crossed leftward over that rib to a parallel meadow-gully, which we ascended until it forked beneath an odd, oval headwall, where we again went left and followed a meadowy stream-course a short distance to coarse talus, which we ascended the remaining 800-1000' to base of the summit pyramid.
We found the escarpment band below the upper face guarded by variable cliffy ramparts; we picked the most favorable looking section near center, where an area of slabby ledges promised a potential line through, but ultimately involved some exposed class 3-4 and pack-hauling before gaining the steep heather leading into the shallow boulder and bedrock basin of the upper SE face
(finding our way up through the stony escarpment guarding access to Despair's upper SE face)
In this season the snow-free upper face appears to offer lots of route latitude among the slabby rock outcrops, blocks, and heathered interstices. However, the right (E) side of face nearer the East Ridge looked likely to exceed scrambling terrain; we found a central line more promising, which eventually converged with and reached the East Ridge next to a conspicuous axehead step.
Here we found a broad ledge wrapping around the backside of the ridge--roomy enough for a bivy site (at least for those who don't roll in their sleep). From here the route took an excursion on the shadier NE face for the better part of the remaining couple hundred feet and 15 minutes to the summit.
(Initial part of route across slabby terrain of upper NE face, class 3-4 with some exposure. Note there is a hidden, narrow chimney-gully near center of image.)
After down climbing a few yards from the ridgecrest ledge and crossing the hidden slot-chimney, the route bears upward and right across the blocky terrain of the NE face, till eventually regaining the crest. Here I opted to step back through to the sunnier south side, where the final crux was a 12-15' chimney-crack back up to the crest (and past a weathered rap station), then easier scrambling terrain to the summit just beyond.
(view down final chimney-crack on S side of ridge)
Happy to finally be on top! Since getting here already pushed beyond our turnaround time, it was a very brief summit stay, abetted by the near-absence of views. (A previously-reported summit register was not found in/around the large cairn there.)
View NE past past Despair's North peak (and saddle joining the E & NE glaciers) toward shadowy hints of the snowfields in the Mt Crowder/Northern Pickets area.
Descending the summit pyramid we tried the lower East Ridge and found a much more reasonable class 2-3 line that we should have taken on the way up. (This route is right on Despair's lower skyline, reaching/starting from the 6600' notch next to a distinct haystack pinnacle.) Once off the upper mountain we began the long traverse back down and around (west-) Goodell's headwater basin... in the late afternoon sun we noted that Triumph's classic features were beginning to emerge through the thinning haze. It would be twilight by the time we regained Triumph Pass, and full darkness overtook us partway down. Fortunately we'd the foresight to leave out an enormous white pointer, which guided us back to camp without incident (and once more provided cool breeze and colder water).
As a final note, despite the appreciable cumulative elevation gains and losses of this approach across/through three drainages, the route described is essentially brush-free -- an uncommon pleasure for a remote objective in the North Cascades. The nearest to brush along this line is where the climbers tread around lower Thornton Lakes is somewhat overgrown, a bit (mostly avoidable) when reaching the slabby streamcourse below Triumph's rampart, and a trifle of brush amid timber on the rampart, and again on the rib leading from the pocket lake up toward Despair -- each and all notable only for their paucity.
Gear Notes: ice axe, crampons, scramble rope (we only used for pack-hauling when essentially off-route) Approach Notes: south approach via Thornton Lakes and Triumph Pass